Flexibility can benefit both employee and employer with the right arrangements in place.
Unfortunately, there is a common tendency among employers who have yet to fully embrace flexibility to look at the implementation of flexible workplace arrangements as ‘favours’ to those employees who have ‘extenuating’ circumstances outside of work, such as family or carer responsibilities.
But with the rapid advent of COVID-19, employers can no longer afford to be on the back foot.
I have had a flexible work schedule on and off for almost 18 years.
Being able to work from home has provided me the opportunity to do laundry at 2pm because I have been up since 6am on work calls. It has allowed me to bring my daughter to school and not have to spend extra money on early morning daycare.
Let me share my journey of how flexibility in the workplace has helped my career.
I started as a support engineer where there wasn’t much flexibility with my work as, back then, you needed to be in the office answering support calls. I would, however, get training days that allowed me to work from home.
I was always grateful to spend time training and being off the phones.
ALLOWING FOR TRAVEL
After a year as a support engineer, I moved into a technical trainer role where I would travel all over North America to train customers and employees. I was the only trainer on the team in my office and so I didn’t need to come into work if I wasn’t travelling.
This was the first time that I was able to have true flexibility over my schedule. At times I would travel on weekends and on days that I wasn’t travelling I would work from home.
Throughout the years I moved into different roles that allowed me flexibility to work from home.
One of the downsides of working from home was that I didn’t have face-to-face time with my managers.
I don’t think it has affected my career growth, as such, because every few years I have moved into new roles.
I would say I probably missed some opportunities here and there to take on some interesting work or to go to conferences.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
To allow me to keep in touch with my different managers throughout the years I found a weekly 1:1 call to discuss topics as well as sending weekly updates were helpful initiatives.
This way I could understand how my manager worked and what they expected of me.
I have been fortunate and am grateful to have move into different roles throughout my career that have allowed me to excel while providing the flexibility to work from home.
Senior Director, Inclusive Culture Global Technology Company
TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE
Stephanie’s story is just one example of how flexibility has been viewed and implemented with an understanding of the greater beneficial aspects, rather than from the perspective of how it limits the physical presence of workers onsite.
An understanding of the positive elements of flexibility and how flexible working environments can realise the best of what people have to offer while retaining talent should be the aim of implementing flexibility in the workplace.
And time is of the essence with COVID-19 forcing our collective hands.
Rather than taking an ad hoc approach, it may be the perfect time to reimagine your workplace.
NO SIMPLE RECIPE
It would be convenient if there were a simple explanation or example of what exactly flexibility in the workplace is so that organisations could use a specific definition of flexibility to guide the implementation of initiatives.
However, flexibility exists under many guises.
Women in Leadership Australia released a report in 2017 that referenced the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) nine modes of flexibility in the workplace.
These include carer’s leave, unpaid leave, part-time work, flexible hours, time-in-lieu, job sharing, telecommuting, purchased leave and compressed work weeks(1) and there are many more that could be added to this list.
The report highlights there remains a major challenge to overcome with managers trusting employees to do the work required without the traditional [albeit nonsensical] seated-at-a-desk proxy for productivity.
There is a need to shift organisational psychology in order to genuinely embrace flexibility in the workplace.
WGEA further articulates flexibility by explaining that leave entitlements and part-time work are not really flexible work options but rather are entitlements that don’t necessarily introduce flexibility to the location or time work is conducted.(2)
To highlight the complexity of this topic, below is a figure from the textbook(3) for an Organisational Behaviour undergraduate subject I deliver at a local university.
LONG TERM COSTS AND BENEFITS
With so many options for structuring flexibility in the workplace, it could become an overwhelming task.
On the other hand, we should be excited that there are so many ways of meeting the needs of both employees and organisations that may actually better suit changing work environments.
Questions emerge as to whether there is a long-term financial benefit to implementing flexibility in the workplace, whether the right structure(s) are in place and if the flexibility options are sustainable.
HIERARCHIES NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE
We might be tempted to only consider traditional organisational structures and how to implement flexibility into these to attract and retain talent; however, with changing economic conditions, traditional hierarchical structures of employee-employer dynamics may no longer be viable.
Dr Julie Durnan, who started ‘Restoration Health Clinic’ five years ago, has seen a growth of 20 per cent in her team and 10 per cent in revenue year-on-year. The clinic now has 14 people (12 women and 2 men) contributing to the business model but they are not all employees.
The clinic is run through a combination of traditional employee relationships, commissioned employees and independent contractors ranging from naturopaths, nutritionists, acupuncturists and front desk staff.
A NEW BUSINESS MODEL
Julie says the business model allows for the flexibility of the doctors, in particular, to manage their schedules around their other commitments while providing a space they can work among like-minded professionals.
Julie selects people based on values which means she is better able to determine who will be the right fit for the business rather than just relying on technical skills or 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday availability.
‘Our culture is excellent because I focus on values. We are all very well matched and everybody understands our mission and the expectations,’ Julie says.
Surprisingly, when I first spoke with Julie, she didn’t think her business was particularly flexible but the business model itself intrinsically exemplifies flexibility.
ITS NOT JUST ABOUT THE KIDS
This is how we need to be imagining flexible workplaces; it’s not just about how to introduce policies or procedures into current structures that allow staff to pick their children up from school, for example (although these arrangements have helped my own and many other parents’ circumstances greatly over the years).
As we know, flexible working arrangements are key to enabling greater diversity in our organisations, especially with the need to improve opportunities for women.(4,5)
Increasing the diversity of those contributing to workplaces has enormous financial and intellectual benefits.
Long term, flexible work arrangements are relatively inexpensive to implement but have significant financial returns, for example through lower absenteeism, tardiness and sick leave(6) while increasing the intellectual capacity of the organisation.
THE TIME IS RIGHT
With many professionals choosing greater flexibility in their own career endeavours by leaving the corporate hierarchies behind, considering alternative employment arrangements to enhance the sustainability of their operations and retain talent is an advantageous position for modern organisations to take.
‘Organisations that don’t help their people achieve work-life balance will find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the most capable and motivated employees.’ (7)
In addition, it may well be the way such organisations can get through the current crisis relatively unscathed, as well ensuring a future for their business.
1. Women in Leadership (November 2017) ‘Women in leadership: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way. https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/
2. Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) ‘Workplace flexibility’ Accessed: 6 March 2020. https://www.wgea.gov.au/topics/workplace-flexibility
3. Robbins, Judge, Edwards, Sandiford, Fitzgerald & Hunt (2020) Organisational Behaviour 9th Ed. Pearson Australia. Chpt 1. Exhibit 1.4
7. Robbins, Judge, Edwards, Sandiford, Fitzgerald & Hunt (2020) Organisational Behaviour 9th Ed. Pearson Australia. Chpt 1. Section 1.6